“Because you are a woman, merely a woman” – It was with this ‘punchline’ that District Collector Joseph Alex, the character played by superstar Mammootty in the 1995 Malayalam film The King, topped off a long-winded, insulting and moralistic lecture to his feisty young subordinate. At that point, the hero’s theme music kicks in, leading to thunderous applause from the audience in the theatre. The film was the highest grosser at the box office that year.
Two decades later, the same superstar’s film Kasaba hit the theatres. In a sequence from the film, the character played by him, a police officer, is warned against smoking inside the station by a young female colleague. The hero, in response, grabs her belt, pulls her closer and says something which cannot be written here. The theme music plays, as he walks away, to hooting and whistling from his legion of fans. In the real world, an act like that would have been slapped with a sexual harassment case. In the reel world though, the film broke a few collection records.
Take the case of the other reigning superstar – Mohanlal. In 2000 was released one of the biggest hits of his career – Narasimham. One of the celebrated lines from that movie comes towards the end, when the hero proposes to the lady – “Come with me, if you can tolerate my arriving drunk late at night and kicking you, bear my children and cry for me after my death.” Visibly impressed, the lady gladly jumps into his jeep.
Slap, insult and tame the shrew – This has been the modus operandi in many of the films from the 1990s starring Mohanlal, Mammootty, Suresh Gopi, Dileep, Jayaram and others. Even in the 1998 Mohanlal starrer Kanmadam, feted much for its strong female lead character played by Manju Warrier, this act of taming happens through a forced kiss, complete with a romantic background score. In Dileep’s movies, popular with the family audience, rape jokes and slap-the-woman fests are par for the course.
The new crop of actors, except on rare occasions, have been careful in not mouthing politically incorrect and misogynist lines.
A wake-up call
Last week, following the kidnapping and sexual assault of a young actor, voices of outrage were heard from the industry. At a solidarity meeting in Kochi, the stars spoke up on the need to “respect women” and to “protect our sisters and mothers”, inadvertently resorting to the logic of patriarchy.
Soon, criticism started from various quarters, especially in the social media, pointing at the hypocrisy of those who have scripted and mouthed misogynistic and patriarchal lines in popular cinema for years, commenting on “respecting women”.
The first salvo was fired from within the industry. Young filmmaker Aashiq Abu said: “The best contribution that we can give to this society is for the scriptwriters, film-makers, stars and producers to pledge that they would not write or act out misogynistic lines, just for cheap thrills and a few claps.”
Abu had, in one of his earlier films, ‘Salt N Pepper’, created a sequence which turned the usual staple misogynistic sequence of superstar cinema on its head, by having a woman character return twice what she got. Another filmmaker Bijukumar Damodaran went one step ahead and asked the women audience to boo inside the theatres, every time they hear such lines.
On Saturday, for the first time, a topline star apologised for all the misogynistic lines that he uttered. Actor Prithviraj wrote in a facebook post – “And to those voices I apologise..for at an age and time when I wasn’t wise enough..I have been part of films that celebrated misogyny..I have mouthed lines that vilified regard for your self-respect and I have taken a bow to the claps that ensued. NEVER AGAIN..never again will I let disrespect for women be celebrated in my movies! Yes..I’m an actor and this is my craft! I will wholeheartedly trudge the grey and black with characters that possess unhinged moral compasses…but I will never let these men be glorified or their actions justified on screen.”
Going by the all-round praise that Prithviraj seems to be getting now, the tide seems to be slowly turning as far as misogyny in Malayalam cinema is concerned.